My Takeaways from Election 2020 (City Council Edition)

Fresh off the first city council election consolidated with the statewide primary, and with a final statement of votes case yet to be recorded, I want to offer my take on what made Election 2020 notable. Your mileage may vary, so do get in touch to offer your own takeaways!

Councilmember Lili Bosse had a great night.

Lili Bosse ran an upbeat, high-road campaign punctuated by mailers that really put the gloss on her quest. It doesn’t hurt that she is among the more relatable councilmembers we’ve had in Beverly Hills. Not surprisingly, the preliminary vote count has her ahead of the second-place finisher by 10 percentage points — a lead that’s widened as more votes are counted. From strong campaign kick-off to big closing party, most everybody wanted to be a part of Bosse’s campaign. (Full disclosure: Renters Alliance endorsed Bosse.)

Councilmember Julian Gold did much better than many had expected.

Unlike Bosse, Julian Gold is a more buttoned-down personality. But he campaigned hard — really hard — and his visage turned up on mailers, newspaper ads and commercial breaks on Fox, CNN and MSNBC. He covered his bases. He had to overcome the structural disadvantage of appearing on the second screen of candidates when a voter used a touchscreen to mark the ballot. And he did overcome that. He also had some significant help: somewhat controversially a PAC organized ostensibly to support Bosse and Gold likely provided a very significant lift. As returns come in he has cleared his 3rd place challenger by 5 percentage points (a gap that appears to be closing).

Challenger Lori Greene Gordon had a disappointing night.

Lori Greene Gordon entered the race without significant name recognition and without the large donor base that supported incumbent Gold. (There are advantages to incumbency.) Name recognition is perhaps never more so than this year given our city council race appearing on the statewide primary ballot. It was crucial to reach voters who may not have been attuned to local politics, but it seemed that too few of her distinctive pink mailers found them. Her five years on the planning commission show her to be an insightful and critical presence on the dais, but few residents tune in and what appears to be an insurmountable gap opened between Gordon and the incumbents.

Money talked.

An independent political action committee (PAC) swooped in with $100,000 to spend on Bosse and Gold mailers and newspaper ads. ‘Beverly Hills United to Support Bosse and Gold’ PAC was funded by a handful of business interests (many of whom have ties to Rodeo Drive commercial property) and they contributed an average $9,000 each to get their message out. That was twenty times what any candidate received from an individual or entity under the city’s contribution limit and the PAC probably spent well over the city’s voluntary expenditure cap of $80,000 which every candidate pledged to abide. So ubiquitous was the PAC material that Bosse and Gold appeared side-by-side seemingly everywhere even though the candidates don’t appear on a slate, don’t campaign together, and don’t endorse each other.

PAC money is probably here to stay.

Independent political action committees (PACs) are lawful if they don’t coordinate with candidates. Contributors can cough up a sky-high sum as long as they are identified. That means the only real cost to a contributor for flooding our election with independent money is one’s reputation. After all, who wants to be part of the gang that pours big money into a local city council race? There should be price paid but there likely wont’ be. Our two weekly newspapers never even looked into the PAC much less those behind it. With a victory notched — and wasn’t it easy given the city’s low contribution and expenditure limits? — that PAC effort will be repeated. Imagine PAC campaigns for ballot measures or school board candidates. It’s a return to the skullduggery of past elections like the Montage where big money put a mailer in our mailboxes every single day. (It paid off too.)

Local newspapers failed the electorate.

If the Beverly Hills Courier and the Beverly Hills Weekly can’t bother to investigate PAC money in our election, what are the odds that these newspapers would provide insightful coverage of the election? Or publish a reasoned and informative editorial? Long odds. As would be expected, the Weekly posed only softball questions to the candidates: “Why are you running for City Council? If elected, what do you hope to accomplish? Why should someone vote for you?” That facilitated a one-sided conversation that allowed candidates to simply repeat their talking points. As for endorsements, the Weekly phrased that responsibility in the form of a question: “What do you, our readers, think?” In the end the paper didn’t endorse. Not declined to endorse, mind you, just never mentioned it again.

The Courier under-performed even my low expectations. The paper interviewed the candidates posing “questions designed to elicit their views and vision” (the paper said) but then didn’t publish any of the responses. So we never leaned what the Courier asked, or what was said. Moreover, the canned endorsement didn’t even suggest any particular question was asked. Light on substance it concluded simply, “Bosse and Gold are the candidates to lead the City at this time.” No voter any guidance at all. And in a not-so-thoughtful coda the endorsement name-checked no other candidate who sat for the supposed grilling.

Beverly Press continues to impress.

Beverly Press once served West Hollywood and the Miracle Mile area but the weekly has greatly expanded its coverage of Beverly Hills in recent years. It is by far the best source for news about Beverly Hills and this election was a great example. The paper ran substantive articles about issues as they emerged during the race and was the only newspaper to report on the formation of the Bosse-Gold political action committee. (It even got candidates Bosse and Gold on record about it.) That kind of mojo leaves our two local newspapers in the dust because the Weekly and the Courier prefer to regurgitate press releases and summarize city meeting videos.

Local politics still matters.

City council business may often seem remote from daily concerns, but city hall is still the layer of government closest to we-the-people. And the decisions made by council affect all of us. Especially now that Sacramento is forcing localities to build much more housing. Our city will have to change policies to comply and that will affect renting households disproportionately because apartment buildings will be redeveloped. Builders will be required to include some proportion of new ‘affordable’ units in new projects. But how big a proportion? The city will tweak the zoning code to encourage housing construction. But at what density and where will it go? Because these details matter, local politics still matters — now more than ever.

Hello Election 2020!

It is never too early to think ahead to Election 2022! Three city council seats will be up for grabs. We can expect one or more incumbents to run again, but three open seats — and a three-term councilmember up for possible reelection — will invite a horde of challengers. We may see a city council ballot look like the Democratic primary! This year arrangements looked like they might not change appreciably. The same can’t be said for 2022. Those who rent housing account are more than half of all city households and we have tremendous potential political power. Will 2022 be a replay of 2020 — or will we harness that power to make 2022  the year the tenants swung the outcome?

Renters didn’t merit a mention on the campaign trail.

Tenants can only do better than this election cycle because this year we had no part in the discussion. Was any candidate asked about issues that may matter to households that rent housing? No. Unless I missed it, no candidate volunteered to speak directly to the concerns of tenants either. That is crazy; we are in the third year of the high-stakes rent stabilization ordinance policy process. And the city council we install in April will have a great impact on the cost of our housing over time. That never merited a mention? The old Courier would have put the question at the top of their interview agenda. Not so the new Courier.

Institutional Democrats likely had some effect on the outcome.

Turnout was high for Election 2020 given the intense interest in the primary. Because Trump was running virtually unopposed on the Republican ticket, we will likely see that Democrats edged them out in passion. Some proportion of voters might not even have voted in an odd-year municipal election, but they would be at the polls for the primary. That gave the local political machine an opportunity to influence voters perhaps not familiar with the local race. The West Hollywood Beverly Hills Democratic Club mailed out its usual endorsement guide and it’s very likely that this cycle it reached many more undecided voters. I bet the institutional voice of the Democratic Club had more traction with voters than ever before.

Find our election coverage over at the Renters Alliance Election 2020 page. Do you have an opinion about how this city council election was different? Please get in touch!